In the comments on the post about the gay adoptive parents seeking a new Louisiana birth certificate, a now-familiar discussion arose. I thought it might be useful to write a short post that might clarify some of the issues. At least I can hope.
Consider how birth certificates are used. One place I’ve been asked for a birth certificate is in enrolling a child for school. Another is in applying for a passport. In these instances, the birth certificate provides the agency that asks for it (the school district or the state department) with several needed pieces of information–two in particular.
First, the birth certificate allows the agency to establish the age of the child. Second, the birth certificate demonstrates my entitlement as a parent to enroll the child or apply for the passport.
To establish the age, the birth certificate needs to state the date on which the child was born. (The state department may also need to see that the child was born in the US.) The date and place of birth are past facts–things that happened once and can be recorded permanently.
To establish my entitlement to apply for the document or enroll the child, the birth certificate needs to reflect my current status as a legal parent. Perhaps I adopted the child. If so, the original parent or parents of the child have no right to participate in the decision about where the child goes to school or whether the child gets a passport. That decision is mine alone.
This means that the original parents name does not need to be on the birth certificate but my name does need to be. This is why, when I complete the adoption, I get a new birth certificate for the child.
Beyond that, I think I might claim it’s no business of the school or the state department (or the soccer team, which wants the birth certificate for age verification) whether I adopted the child or gave birth to the child. Thus, as an adoptive parent, I want a birth certificate that is identical to the original one, except with my name instead of the original parent’s name.
I think this explains what generally happens–how states deal with birth certificates, what can be changed and what cannot be changed and, to an extent why.
But let me be clear, too, about what I am not saying. I do not mean to suggest that it has to be this way or that this is the best way to do things. Perhaps change is warranted.
I can imagine a system where one document records the date/place of birth and perhaps also the identity of the woman who gives birth to the child. All of these seem to me to be historical facts. They could be recorded in a permanent and unchanging record.
Then I could imagine a second piece of paper which recorded the legal parentage of the child. That could be reissued if the identity of the legal parents changed. (I’m fuzzy on a lot of details, like whether state 2 could issue a new certificate upon completion of adoption where the original certificate had been issued in state 1, but nevermind that for now.)
When I wanted to register my child for school I’d produce both pieces of paper–the one showing I am the current legal parent and the one showing the date of birth for the child. Of course, this would only work if the school district was prepared to accept these two pieces of paper instead of a birth certificate. If I wanted the child to play soccer, I’d only need the paper showing date of birth.
The thing is, this is a fairly substantial change from current practice. That’s not to say it shouldn’t happen. But until it does happen, adoptive parents need birth certificates that have their names on them.
Perhaps adoptive parents should be encouraged to preserve a copy of the child’s original birth certificate to give to the child in order to ensure that the child has access to the information on that original certificate. That’s something anyone could do right now and it seems to me it would help address some of the concerns that have been raised.